By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Worn Path’ is a short story by the American writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001), first published in the Southern Review in 1937 and reprinted in Welty’s 1941 collection A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. ‘A Worn Path’ details the journey an elderly black woman makes into town one Christmas time, in order to get some medicine for her grandson.
Before we offer an analysis of this deeply symbolic story, it might be worth recapping the plot.
‘A Worn Path’: plot summary
One cold December morning, an elderly black woman named Phoenix Jackson walks into town to get some medicine for her grandson. She is very old and the journey is fraught with obstacles. At one point, a black dog appears and, although she tries to shoo it away, the sudden appearance of the dog forces her to fall into a ditch.
A white hunter appears and he helps her up, before going after the dog with his gun and his own dog. Phoenix hears shots fired, and steals a nickel from the man, which had fallen onto the ground without him realising. She pockets it before he comes back. He tells her she’s too old and frail to be walking so far and that she should go home, but she insists she must go into town.
When she arrives in town, all the Christmas decorations are up and a woman carrying presents passes Phoenix on the path. Phoenix asks the woman to lace up her shoe for her, and the woman does so. Phoenix goes to the hospital, where the attendant initially mistakes Phoenix for a charity case. Phoenix doesn’t respond when asked who she is, until mention of her grandson (by a nurse who comes in and recognises her) suddenly jogs her memory.
It turns out that she regularly makes this journey into town to get some medicine for her grandson, who swallowed some lye several years ago and remains bedridden as a result. Phoenix says it is just her and her grandson and she has to take care of him.
Once she has been given the medicine, she goes to leave, but the attendant gives her a nickel as it’s Christmas time. She places it next to the nickel she took from the hunter she met on the path, and announces that she will go and buy a paper windmill for her grandson, as he will not believe such a thing exists.
‘A Worn Path’: analysis
‘A Worn Path’ is a deeply symbolic story, in which the ‘worn path’ is both literal and metaphorical. Phoenix – whose very name summons the mythical bird that rose from the ashes of its own funeral pyre – is ageing and frail, and the worn path of life has taken its toll on her, but she nevertheless undertakes this journey, which is symbolic in other ways as well.
For example, some critics have suggested that Phoenix’s journey is meant to recall the journey into the underworld undertaken by a mythic hero in epic poems. Such a journey is, for obvious reasons, a descent: a journey down into the chthonic space where the souls of the dead are found.
Usually, the hero who undertakes such a journey is seeking to find someone: Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey, wishes to seek Tiresias the seer, who can prophesy how the hero’s quest will unfold; Orpheus goes into Hades to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice; and so on.
Phoenix is similarly on a quest, and, perhaps surprisingly, the quest she is undertaking may not be the search for a medicine for her grandson but for her grandson himself.
How can that be, when he is bedridden at home? One of the questions which the ending of ‘A Worn Path’ raises is whether Phoenix’s grandson is, in fact, already dead.
Although she denies this, there are some suggestions that he has already passed away from his illness: the repeated references to how the grandson’s throat ‘never heals’ and how ‘obstinate’ his condition is can be read as deliberately ambiguous, hinting at either a chronic and constant affliction or Phoenix’s refusal to accept that her grandson died of his ailments some time ago.
It also seems strange that Phoenix should forget why she had undertaken such a difficult journey, if her grandson’s health is truly dependent on receiving such life-preserving medicine.
Instead, Welty hints at an alternative interpretation, whereby ‘A Worn Path’ is the story of a woman’s psychological inability to give up her last living relative, and accept that he is, in fact, dead and she is now all alone. (As she has the responsibility of fetching his medicine, the boy’s own parents, we deduce, are either absent or dead.)
She performs this ritual on a regular basis, and the people at the hospital humour her out of charity, seeing how important this journey is for Phoenix, and perhaps even suspecting that it is the only thing that keeps her going, providing a reason to go on living.
The journey may be fraught with physical hardship, but the alternative is to give up altogether. The ‘worn path’, then, might be itself a metaphor for life: living is hard and we will find our fair share of obstacles and dangers lying in wait for us, but the alternative is not to walk the path at all.
Given how invested with symbolism ‘A Worn Path’ is, the final words – which describe another kind of ‘descent’, as Phoenix walks down the stairs, ‘going down’ – complicate and even problematise the more optimistic meaning lurking within her name.
She may be likened to a phoenix – a bird which rises from the ashes of its own funeral pyre – and this may imply that she will keep on going, no matter what. But has something changed during this particular journey and her encounter in the hospital?
Why does Welty focus on this journey: is it because it is the last time she will ever walk that worn path? Note how she not only forgets what she is doing there, but grows vacant, not even acknowledging the nurse’s questions. Has she finally realised he is no longer alive, and is she finally letting go? And if so, do those final words imply that she is ready to ‘go down’ herself, and descend from this life into the next?